The Kingdom of
Saudi Arabia is a monarchy under the
rule of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz and
is governed on the basis of Sharia law.
Sharia law, which derives from the
teachings of the Qur’an as well as from
Sunna, the practice of the prophet
Mohammed, is implemented to varying
degrees in different Islamic countries.
Within Sharia law, there is a specific
set of offences known as the Hudud
offences. These are crimes punishable by
specific penalties, such as stoning,
lashes, the severing of a hand. The
penalties for hudud offences are not
universally adopted as law in Muslim
states. Some countries, such as Saudi
Arabia that claim to live under pure
Sharia law enforce severe penalties for
criminal offences, including beheading.
Also, according to the Sharia, if one
causes the death or injury of another
person accidentally or intentionally, he
or she has to pay blood money or diya.
The blood money is to be paid to the
victim’s family as compensation and the
amount is given in accordance with
On the other hand, if the father of the
victim decides to forgive, the culprit
can be prevented from being subjected to
Rukshana Rizwie and Vindya Amaranayake
When Rizana Nafeek, a woodcutter’s daughter from the
war-ravaged Mutur, arrived in the Kingdom of Saudi
Arabia on May 4, 2005, she must have been hoping to
build a better life for her family.
Now, more than five years later, her life is hanging
in the balance.
Only 18 days after her arrival in Riyadh, the
capital of Saudi Arabia, she was arrested for
murder, and then convicted.
A few days ago, Riyadh Supreme Court endorsed the
death sentence on the now 22-year-old Rizana.
Human rights organisations repeatedly appealed to
Saudi authorities with no avail. And, Sri Lanka’s
former Deputy Foreign Minister Husain Bhaila made a
personal request to the victim’s father, which did
not bear fruit. And now as a final resort, President
Mahinda Rajapaksa has made an appeal on behalf of
Rizana to the Saudi King, which has been
communicated through diplomatic channels.
Now, the girl’s family and the entire nation are
awaiting the response of the King, for she is yet to
learn that her appeal has been rejected by the
Sri Lanka’s External Affairs Ministry is still
hopeful that Rizana’s life could be saved.
A ministry source confided that despite the fact
that all legal avenues to save her had been
exhausted, there are still diplomatic ways that are
yet to be explored.
It has been several years since her story dominated
both local and international media attention.
However, over the past couple of years, she has been
forgotten, buried under numerous other cases of
housemaid abuse and all this while she has been
imprisoned in a Riyadh prison.
“We too have received word that the sentence has
been confirmed, but wish to believe that there is
yet a lot that we could do to save her,” said the
Officials confer that despite the legal ruling, all
death sentences are passed on to the Governorate of
the particular district where the alleged murder had
taken place, for his approval of the sentence, after
which it is then passed on to the Interior Ministry
of Saudi Arabia.
The Interior Ministry in the Kingdom is equivalent
to the Ministry of Home Affairs and Public
Administration here in Sri Lanka.
The Ministry of Interior in Saudi Arabia consists of
the heads of Royal Family with King Abdullah bin
Abdualaziz Al Saud at the top of the hierarchy.
All hopes are pinned on his clemency.
On May 22, 2005, 18 days after Rizana arrived in
Saudi Arabia she was asked to care for her sponsors’
son, a four-month old infant.
Rizana was only 17 years old at the time and had no
prior training or experience in child care.
The baby chocked when she tried to bottle feed him
and Rizana frantically tried to soothe him by
rubbing his chest, neck and back while calling out
to the sponsor’s wife.
But, by the time she arrived, the baby was
unconscious or already dead.
Rizana was working for Naif Jiziyan Khklafal Otaibi
at their residence in Dawdami (390km west of the
Rizana was immediately arrested and a confession
which she had to sign at the Police station earned
her the repute of an infanticide.
Parents of the deceased child claimed that she
strangled the child.
Rizana was not given access to lawyers during her
interrogation or any of the events leading up to her
She said she was questioned by police in a language
she didn’t understand and had to sign documents
which she couldn’t read.
Rizana is the eldest in a family of four children
Her poverty-stricken family presumed that sending
their daughter would help them support the family.
Despite the fact that Rizana was only 17 years of
age at the time, her passport was forged to say that
she was born on February 2, 1982 when her real date
of birth, according to her birth certificate is
February 4, 1988.
Rizana arrived in Jeddah on May 4, 2005, but was
soon taken to Riyadh where she had to work for a
family of 10 children from 4 am. She had no training
on baby sitting and no experience taking care of an
Rizana first appeared in courts on February 3, 2007,
which is where she retracted her original confession
stating that the confession had been obtained by the
Police under duress.
On June 16 that year, she was sentenced to death for
The bench comprised a three-member panel of judges
led by Chief Judge Abdullah Abdualaziz Al Rosaini.
By then, the Asian Human Rights Commission took
matters into their own hands by paying a legal fee
of US$ 40,000 (150,000 Saudi Riyals) and assigning a
lawyer to proceed with an appeal.
AHRC claimed that Rizana could not be tried or
convicted for murder because she was a juvenile at
It stated that Saudi Arabia is party to the
Convention on the Rights of the Child, which
explicitly prohibits the execution of offender for
crimes committed under the age of 18.
July 16, 2007 was the deadline and the AHRC were
able to lodge an appeal in time.
The Sri Lankan Government at the time refused to pay
that insurmountable sum.
Rizana meets her family
For the first time since her arrest, Rizana met her
family in prison.
The meeting as arranged by the then visiting Deputy
Foreign Minister Husain Bhaila who said the meeting
was a very emotional one for both Rizana and her
He was not allowed to see her and only her parents
were allowed to speak to her in the cell.
Rizana spent many months in prison before finally
appearing in courts again.
In December, her case was sent back to the Dawadmi
courts to review its verdict.
It was also at this time that negotiations with
Rizana’s sponsor had taken place with the hope that
he might pardon her.
• Her passport
indicates that Rizana was born in
February 1982, but her birth certificate
and her claims make out that she was
born on February 4, 1988
• Saudi Arabia is party to Convention on
the Rights of Child, which explicitly
prohibits the execution of offenders for
crimes committed under the age of 18
• The actual incident: Rizana was asked
to care for the four-month old baby boy
who was also to be fed. On May 22, while
she was feeding the child, he began to
choke. Panicking, Rizana tried to soothe
the child by rubbing his chest, neck and
face, while shouting for help. Hearing
the shouts the mother came running, but
by that time the baby was either
unconscious or already dead
• The couple accused Rizana of
strangling the baby and handed her over
• At the police station, she was made to
sign a confession which was only in
Arabic and she was not provided or told
of what the document stated
• The court asked the father repeatedly
if he wished to pardon her, but he
• Under Saudi Arabia’s strict version of
Sharia, a death sentence for
premeditated murder can be quashed
through a pardon from the victim’s
family on the basis of ‘diya,’ or blood
However, several times he had point blankly
refused to speak to anyone and the leader of the
tribe he belonged to said Rizana was guilty.
The case then kept bouncing back and forth between
the Dawadmi Court and the Supreme Judicial Council
to no avail.
Rizana turns 20 behind bars
Rizana’s case was taken up again in June, 2008, the
same year she turned 20 behind bars. By then, news
of her imprisonment, pleas from her family and the
desperate attempts by the diplomatic community had
the local public, both in Saudi Arabia and Sri Lanka
feeling much empathy towards her case.
Many hoped she would be allowed to go home.
Rizana appeared in courts for the fourth time on
June 9, 2008.
Her lawyer at the Dawadmi High Court questioned the
validity of the Arabic translator who was asked to
The court ruled that the Supreme Judicial Council
will have to address the attorney’s objection and
her case was again referred to the higher court for
Her case was again taken up on December 21, 2009
where a positive outcome heralded newfound hope for
The High Court in Dawadmi rejected a Police
interpreter who was brought into translate her
statement, and instead offered Rizana the help of an
Indian electrician Abdul Careem to serve her as an
Despite all these attempts, Rizana is still
languishing in a prison with no sign of clemency
from the authorities.
Whether she will be able to return to the country of
her birth safely or whether her life will be taken
in a public execution is an eventuality that the
entire country is anxiously awaiting.
Amnesty International this week called on the King
of Saudi Arabia to halt the execution of Rizana.
Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa
Programme Director, Malcolm Smart said:
“It would be outrageous if Rizana Nafeek were to be
executed for this crime. It appears that she was
herself a child at the time and there are real
concerns about the fairness of her trial.
“Saudi Arabia has had one of the highest rates of
executions in the world, with migrants from poor and
developing countries among the main victims.”